The intense heavy metal sound of Kittie is back with their third release, Until The End, available on Artemis Records.
by Billy Amendola
Fronting the band are the founding Lander sisters – drummer Mercedes and her sister Morgan on lead vocals and guitar. This time around the siblings are joined by bassist Jennifer Arroyo (who came on board in 2002) and the band’s newest member, guitarist Lisa Marx.
Six of the tracks from Until The End were written prior to Kittie’s US tour last summer, allowing the group to try them out before a live audience. “I’ve always believed,” insists Mercedes, “that if you tour on a song before you record it, it turns out better in the studio.”
Lately it seems everyone is pasting together parts in the studio. Of course, the end result is always a “perfect” track. But if you listen closely to the raw, imperfect-but-in-a-good-way tracks on Until The End, you begin to think, maybe this stuff is strictly live.
MD asks Mercedes right up front, so, “Are you playing on the record?”
Mercedes: Of course I am. wouldn’t have it any other way, trust me – I’m a jerk when it comes to that stuff. I think I’m good enough. And you know what? I don’t play to a click track, and there’s no digital editing on this record. Well on song, “Daughters Down,” I missed a bell hit on my ride cymbal and hit the felt instead, so we put in another bell hit. But that was the only time. We’re not duplicating the choruses or verses or anything like that.
MD: How did you cut the tracks?
Mercedes: I went in and I played them. [laughs]
MD: Good one. Did you cut them live?
Mercedes: Yes. There’s Morgan, Jennifer, and me all playing together.
MD: How was the room? Big space, open mic’s?
Mercedes: What’s weird is that this recording had the fewest mic’s I’ve ever used, but I got the best drum sound I’ve ever had. I had a couple of overhead mic’s and a couple of room mic’s. On some tracks, I did have one mic’ on every tom and two mic’s on my snare. And I did use two mic’s on my kick drum, plus the new Yamaha Sub-Kick.
MD: Let’s go back to the when you first started playing drums.
Mercedes: I think, if anything, boredom made me want to play drums, wanting to try something new. I’ve been playing music since I was five years old. I took piano for almost ten years. And I took vocal lessons for two years. My sister Morgan had been taking classical guitar lessons since she was eight, then she quit for a couple years and got an electric guitar. I was like, “Dude, I’ll play drums.” So I was jamming with Morgan, but at the same time I was jamming with another girl. We kind of combined.
MD: Did you take lessons?
Mercedes: I had two drum teachers in the span of like six months. My first teacher was amazing. I knew all about theory from piano. I actually do know how to read drum music, but [whispers] I don’t ever want to do that again. Anyway, my first drum teacher moved to Vancouver. I really didn’t like my second one that much, so I quit. So to answer your question, I only had a couple months of drum training. I decided that if I was going to learn how to play, I would teach myself, because I wanted to learn my own style, not anyone else’s.
MD: Did you play along to records?
Mercedes: No, which is really weird. I learned more from just jamming with my sister and my band, although that’s probably not the best way to do it. [laughs]
MD: So who influenced your playing?
Mercedes: I’ve always been a fan of any good rock drummer. When I was younger, I loved Van Halen, AC/DC, late-’70s/early-’80s rock bands. When I started playing drums, I had a newfound appreciation for those bands. Those were the first bands that I started listening to and realizing, “Yeah! Alex Van Halen – that guy is a bad-ass.” And then the current bands I was listening to were early Tool, a lot of Silverchair – I was into the grunge scene and those kinds of drummers, like Dave Grohl. I also listened to a lot of really good metal, like Metallica and Pantera.
MD: I can hear a little bit of Vinnie Paul’s double bass influence in your playing.
Mercedes: Thanks. Vinnie Paul’s awesome. He’s influenced so many drummers. I think recently he’s influenced my style of playing more. I was talking to him once and he told me that when he starts a double kick roll, he starts with his left foot instead of his right.
MD: Do you play double bass drum or double pedal?
Mercedes: Double pedal. I can’t play with two kick drums. I play with an 18×22 kick drum, and my legs are way too short to play with two of them. I did it once and it sucked. [laughs]
MD: What exercises would you do to practice your double bass? Would you copy what you would do with your hands?
Mercedes: Exercises? What are those? [laughs] Actually, recently I started doing paradiddles with my feet, just to teach myself to do cooler things. I know all about that stuff, but if something sounds good, I don’t think it should have a name or a label, you know what I mean? Like, “Oh, I just did a triple paradiddle,” or whatever it is. That’s not my style.
MD: When you work on new songs, how do you work them out? You said earlier that you like trying them out live first.
Mercedes: Live, I’m always ready to try different things. I’m always going to try to put that extra double kick roll in, just for fun – and it helps to develop the song.
MD: Do you write with the band?
Mercedes: Yes. I write a lot of guitar riffs, even though I don’t know how to play guitar very well. I use my mouth. I’m like, “Do this?” [Mercedes sings a riff.]
MD: That’s how a lot of drummers get their ideas out.
Mercedes: I think drummers have a certain talk that guitar players don’t understand. And guitar players have a certain talk that drummers don’t understand. Trying to explain stuff to guitar players is hard. [laughs] And I know, it doesn’t help that I have these crazy rules that go along with my playing.
MD: Such as?
Mercedes: Oh, they’re weird. Crazy stuff like, if I’m playing a song and there’s a repeating verse or chorus or whatever, I have to do something that’s in the same vein but different each time. I can’t do the same thing twice.
MD: When you play the song live, do you play what you played on the record?
Mercedes: Not necessarily. I think that forgetting how to play some of the older songs comes into play. For instance, on the new record, I’ll never play “Looks So Pretty” like I played it on the record, because I was just making stuff up in the studio. To memorize every single roll in that song – there’s probably like thirty of them – would be stupid. And I think it gives the song more life if you mix it up a little bit. There’s no point, really, in playing exactly what you’ve recorded, because kids don’t go out to the show to see that. They want to see something amazing, something different.
MD: Sometimes, though, there will be identifiable or specific parts that everybody knows and air drums to. If you change something like that, won’t everybody be like, “What?”
Mercedes: I can understand that, but the root of the song is always going to be there. It’s just little things. Whenever I play the song live I just seem to think of cool stuff.
MD: How long is it between the time you write a song and record it?
Mercedes: We write our songs in my basement and then we go into the studio. We don’t have pre-production. We never have. But we are very efficient in the studio. The first record was done in nine days, the second record was recorded in two weeks, and the third was done in three weeks. So we’re super quick. I’m always done with the drum tracks in the first three days.
MD: Do you do your own tuning?
Mercedes: I don’t like to. That’s why I have a drum tech, Johnny Magnum. [laughs] If I really had to tune my drums, I would, but I’m probably not very good at it anymore. The people who work for me, I trust them and I know they’re going to make me sound good.
MD: What do you feel is the biggest difference between this recording and the earlier ones?
Mercedes: I think this is the most organic recording we’ve ever done, meaning we used less. I remember when we recorded Oracle I had this giant tent around my drums. It was so dumb – though my drums did sound good. For this record, we recorded in a giant barn in Massachusetts called Longview Studios. Basically we ate there, slept there, and recorded there. Like I said, I think it’s the best drum sound I’ve ever gotten. I’m in love with the kick drum sound. I have Audix mic’s inside the shells of my kit, mainly because when I play live, I have a problem with hitting mic’s and breaking them.
MD: How was it working with Steve Thompson? Is this the first record that you did with him?
Mercedes: Yes, the other two were done with Garth Richardson. We were going to do this one with Garth too, but he had prior engagements. We’re happy with how the record came out with Steve, though, so we might use him again.
MD: Did you learn any drum tips from him?
Mercedes: Not really. I’ve been recording since I was fifteen, so I’ve been doing this for a while. He likes to work more with the vocalist. We had a good vibe, though. He loved me because I hated click tracks, and so does he, so we got off to a great start. Putting your songs to a click track sounds too robotic. I don’t understand it; I never will. There are a lot of bands out there that do it, but I think it’s cheating. It makes drummers like me look like I’m not as good as them because everything is perfect on that record. Yeah, on our new record there are probably time imperfections, but that’s what makes a record real. And I think a lot of people have lost sight of the whole recording process. Who cares if you’re exactly 130 bpm on the whole song? That means your song doesn’t have any character.
MD: You go, girl.
Mercedes: [laughs] Yeah.
MD: What gear are you using?
Mercedes: Yamaha drums and hardware, Zildjian Z Series cymbals, Audix mic’s, Evans heads, and Ahead sticks. You know what’s really crazy? I can’t play with wooden sticks anymore. My wrists start to hurt. The Ahead sticks absorb shock so much better, in my opinion. And then I wrap my sticks with racquetball tape, so they’re so much bigger and they stick better. Now I rarely drop sticks, only when I’m tired.
MD: Do you play hand percussion at all?
Mercedes: Not live, but I do own a djembe. When I was in fifth grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Little, and she was skilled in all the African rhythms. A couple years ago, I found her and took some lessons from her. She taught me how to do the snapping, which really hurts actually.
MD: Let’s run down some songs on the new album, and you tell me what jumps out. First off, were any of them written around the drums?
Mercedes: “Pussy Sugar” was definitely built around the drums.
MD: “Looks So Pretty.”
Mercedes: Double kick?
MD: Good intro.
Mercedes: For sure. It’s like total stoner-rock, and then it’s like Slayer. It totally breaks into a wicked-bad Slayer riff.
MD: “Career Suicide.”
Mercedes: I like the way it starts. That’s our cool upbeat song that we’ve always wanted to do but never did until now.
MD: “Until The End.”
Mercedes: That song was pretty much guitar-written. I did write a lot of the guitar riffs on at least eight songs – some little things, but some big things like the chorus riff of “Into The Darkness.”
MD: That’s the single, right?
Mercedes: Yes it is.
MD: There are two versions – one with the agro vocals and one with more melodic vocals. Which one do you like?
Mercedes: The agro vocals. I mean, that’s the way the song was intended. Everybody’s in love with the other version, and I don’t get it. That’s okay, though.
MD: “Red Flag.”
Mercedes: That song was the second to last song we wrote before we went into the studio. “Daughter’s Down” was the last one.
MD: Any advice for females who want to play drums?
Mercedes: I think I’d rather give advice to everybody, because I don’t really care for the whole “female” thing, if you know what I mean. I think anybody can do anything they want, male or female. Anything is possible in this world. Just go for it!
For more on Kittie, check out their official Web site, www.kittierocks.com.